Joel Daniel Harris knows that middle schoolers have it rough. But the founder and “executive dreamer” of TomTod Ideas also knows that in spite of all the awkward growing pains, those kids are bursting with great ideas.

TomTod, a “dream incubator” for middle-school students, is focused on empowering young teens and helping bring to life their ideas of how to change the world.

The nonprofit organization was founded in 2012. It currently includes an annual summer camp, in-classroom programming, collaborative community events and a mentorship/idea development program.

Harris, 33, a lifelong resident of Canton, graduated from GlenOak High School and Malone University, then earned his master’s degree at George Fox University in Oregon.

Contents_LeadHe created TomTod after spending about 10 years as a middle-school youth pastor. Working with students showed him how much young teens have to offer, but also how little opportunity they have.

“TomTod really came out of seeing middle school students have passion and energy and imagination and willingness to do things, but seeing also that they lacked the space to do those things,” Harris said. “Our goal was to create a launchpad for the dreams of middle school students.”

While the middle school years may be the most awkward time of your life, because everything about you is changing, it’s also the time when you develop the ability to think abstractly, and your brain is the most active in terms of cognitive development, said Harris, who has studied adolescent development.

“They have this new intellectual capacity that’s just blossoming. And like everything, the more you practice it, the better you are at it.”

The organization is focused on harnessing the power of those students to come up with ideas to improve the common good. Middle schoolers bring an imagination to the table that adults lack, and they’re not afraid to experiment, he said.

“Our goal was to create a launchpad for the dreams of middle school students.”

The organization also is focused on the here and now, as well as the future—the organization’s name is a mash-up of today and tomorrow—and bringing ideas to life in real time, he said.

TomTod operates four main programs:

1. Idea:X—A six- to 18-month-long mentorship program. Middle schoolers pitch ideas to TomTod through an application process. The organization selects projects, pairs the student with a mentor and walks with them through the entire implementation process from gathering a peer leadership team to developing a project timeline.

Past projects have included the Shack-A-Thon—TomTod’s first event, a fundraiser for Refuge of Hope that had more than 50 people sleeping outside in cardboard boxes; Duct4Downs—braided duct tape bracelets sold to raise awareness of Down syndrome and raise funds for the Upside of Downs, a Northeast Ohio organization; anti-bullying curriculum U3: Stand Up, Speak Up, Don’t Give In; and the Water Walk—140 students carried 5-gallon buckets of water over their heads to raise awareness of water issues in sub-Saharan Africa and money for a relief agency.

2. Dreamoratory—A weeklong summer camp in Canton that allows teens to explore the city and see what makes it hum. Then, when they’ve seen the myriad challenges facing the community, they are empowered to come up with collaborative solutions.

3. Grasp. Grow. Go.—An in-classroom program—the first session was implemented this year at the Early College Academy in Canton—that walks students through the ideation process over an entire semester. The program is free to schools and designed to be supportive of and encouraging to educators. The first semester focused on literacy and preparing kids for Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee.

4. Community collaborations—“We don’t corner the market on ideas or innovation or middle-school students, or really on anything, except maybe making up words,” Harris laughed. TomTod partners with local businesses, nonprofits and community leaders for events and projects. The first collaboration was a community screening of the film “Girl Rising.”

TomTod is designed for all middle school students, not just gifted students or students from Canton, Harris said. The organization has worked with students across seven school districts and is looking at expanding its camp and in-classroom programming.

“I think every middle-school student has an imagination. And as long as every middle-school student has an imagination, we’re for every middle-school student,” he said.

The organization is not a need-based one: Some projects including Idea:X and the Dreamoratory do require a fee, but scholarships are available. The organization is determined to never let money stand in the way of a teen’s participating, Harris said.

And while Harris, a Canton native and current resident, loves his hometown, the goal is eventually to spread TomTod beyond the walls of Stark County, while never neglecting its roots.

For more information on TomTod, including how to participate, see www.tomtodideas.org.

About The Author

Jessica Holbrook
Contributor